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Monday, February 18, 2008

Prosecutor's CLE troubles have been an education

As the Strib reports today, there has been a lot of talk in the legal community about whether or not Hennepin County prosecutor Gemma Graham got off too lightly for prosecuting cases while her law license was on restricted status. For a period of 20 years -- from 1986 to 2007 -- Graham continued to practice despite being in noncompliance with the state's continuing legal education requirement. (The high court gave her a reprimand and two years of probation.)

On the one hand, there is no necessary correlation between the CLE requirement and whether a lawyer stays current in his or her field. If you are a criminal law practitioner, you could satisfy the CLE requirement by taking courses in family law, real estate law or any other kind of law you want. In fact, you could take no CLEs in any substantive area of practice at all and still satisfy the CLE requirement with professional-development courses. (You must also accrue a limited number of ethics and elimination-of-bias credits each reporting period as well.) In any event, Graham says she attended some CLEs during the period at issue, but didn't properly record them to make sure she was in compliance.

On the other hand, if Minnesota is going to have a CLE requirement, there have to be consequences for not following it that would dissuade those who would play fast and loose with the rules -- and possibly the law. (It is a misdemeanor in Minnesota to practice law without a valid license.) What bothers me most about Graham's case is the length of time involved -- two decades. She would have known during that entire period that she was not meeting the state's license requirement, but chose to ignore it. The fact that she would make that choice time and time again -- despite reporting period after reporting period where she could have followed the rules -- is what I find most disconcerting about the entire episode. I don't blame Hennepin County Public Defender Lenny Castro for being upset about this -- a prosecutor who would make such a questionable series of choices raises some concerns in my mind as well.

On balance, the punishment strikes me as light given the length of time involved. However, the embarrassment Graham now faces with the media coverage of this has added a new element to that original sanction. I suspect any lawyer thinking of practicing without fulfilling his or her CLE requirement would think twice about doing so now.

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